'Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel,
as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be
annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will
tell you that you're wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch.
Your death will tell you, "I haven't touched you yet."'
(Castaneda, C., The Journey to Ixtlan, 1972)
“When I die, I want to die like my grandfather – who died peacefully in his sleep.
Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.
According to the Book of Common Prayer, in the midst of life we are in death and we do indeed live surrounded by death; the plants and animals we eat, the insects and bugs that expire daily in our own homes and gardens, even the cells within our own bodies. We experience the death of family, friends, pets. Existence is a continuous process of life into death and of course, every person reading this will die. We know this fact intellectually but often ignore it, or choose not to confront it. For most of us death is hidden; the elderly and dying are ‘put away’ where their failure to live need not be a discomfort or embarrassment to others. Few men and women in any 21st century culture will know what is happening to them physically when they are dying; the processes of closing up, giving way and shutting down are things few of us choose to dwell on. Of all major religions, only Buddhism has made a specific practice, through the Bardo Thodol, of the bodily experience of dying. We know our ignorance, yet few of us act upon what we know. Death, even death following a long illness, often comes as a surprise to the dying and the bereaved. In one sense in the midst of death we are in life, so powerful is the conviction of our own existence.
For the shaman, death is a paradoxical and subtle teacher. In any society, traditional or contemporary Western, a shaman is the mediator between worlds: between the world of ordinary reality and the unseen worlds that lie beyond and yet are everywhere. Just as the shaman mediates life, she also mediates death and the apparent spaces between life and death. To the shaman all these things are merely constructs because in her world, the living can visit the Land of the Dead, and the dead the world of the living. Even distinctions between health and illness, madness or sanity are constructs which a traditional shaman might recognise but then move beyond. Western metaphysics and some of the world's major religions perceive what is from a dualistic perspective; recently, there is an increasing tendency for this dualism to collapse beneath its own weight as the worldview of the physicist, the psychologist and the shaman move closer together. In a moving beyond duality the meaning of death is transformed.
The Buryat people of Mongolia, believed coma or fits in childhood marked a new shaman and in very many shamanic cultures across the globe, illness, particularly illnesses such as epilepsy, were and are perceived as a precursor to shamanic initiation, as ingredients of initiation into reality. In such societies, those chosen as shamans often reject the calling, life as a shaman can be isolating and lonely even in societies where shamans are traditionally respected and sometimes feared. While in Cuba, I met a very elderly and much respected curandero who told me that as a teenager he had been extremely ill and given up for dead, until a shaman came and healed him on the understanding that he in turn would become an apprentice and continue the task of healer. In this way, illness precedes ‘death’, the death of the ego, of the 'ordinary' self that expected to lead an ‘ordinary’ life and acceptance of this apparent loss is what leads to shamanic initiation and admittance to a reality more 'real', in the non-dualistic sense, than anything previously imagined. It is also of course the acceptance of future, actual death.
In shamanism, death has many forms and implications. There is the initiatory death described above, which may include dismemberment by the spirits in alternate reality. Like illness, shamanic dismemberment is a threshold, an experience through which the novice must pass in order to be resurrected. In ethnographic literature, dismemberment has been described as the ‘dethronement of the ego’ leading to the reduction of self- focus in psychic life. Dismemberment may occur in order that specific reconstructions are made possible. In one very powerful dismemberment journey, all my internal organs and eyes were removed and piled on the ground where they steamed. Looking at them the word ‘offal’ came very clearly into my mind. My spirits then offered me a set of brand new organs made of a light and strong metal, perhaps titanium. Even now, many years later, I remember very clearly the choice that was offered: the steaming organs piled on the ground, messy but also familiar; or the gleaming metal which was doubtless efficient but also alien and ‘not me’. With great delicacy my spirits stood back, offering a choice and I remember thinking that everything has a price and that if I accepted the shiny new eyes, liver, heart and lungs that somewhere down the line they would have to be paid for. I chose the titanium and watched through metal eyes as my spirits ate what was left on the ground.
Another form of death involves the shamanic journey itself, when the shaman leaves his physical body, sending out parts of his spirit, also known as ‘the free soul’. Each time the shaman journeys it is a kind of death, a separation of body and spirit during which the ‘free soul’ confronts and assimilates experiences outside of time and space, successfully returning with knowledge that in the ordinary world is reserved for dreams, insanity or post-mortem states. It is hardly surprising that traditional shaman's were revered and feared. Greek mythology is filled with stories of the underworld and men and women, who, like Orpheus and Eurydice, travelled there both in life and death, stories whose counterparts can be found around the world as the tale of Izanami in Japan, Itzamna and Ix Chel in Mayan mythology and Inanna in Sumerian. Like the shaman, Charon ferried the souls of the dead safely across the River Styx and into the land of the dead.
Through service to her community in respect of death, the shaman has at least four roles:
- to heal soul loss through finding and return missing soul parts to the living, loss incurred through the ‘small deaths’ of trauma or grief we each experience throughout life
- to relieve the pain and suffering of dying itself by invoking the help of the spirits in journeys, through the use of plant medicines, visualisations and rituals of transition
- during and after death to conduct the spirit of the deceased to where it belongs
- and, in anticipation of actual death, to pass on her own skills and knowledge of the spirits to the next generation
A shaman is ‘the one who sees’ and the ‘ecstasy’ of the shamanic journey is experienced by one able to control ‘extasis’, to step out of himself and perceive how much energy is required to maintain habitual, ego-laden illusions. Just as dismemberment and initiation reveal illness and death to us as creative, so actual physical death is an active process both for the dying person and for the shaman in attendance. Shamans are often referred to as midwives of the dying. Death means new life, whether in the biological sense of fertilisation and nourishment for the soil, or in the spiritual sense of a final surrender of the ego giving access to an un-boundaried all.
What, if anything, of consciousness survives after death and will it be like a journey? Is the Land of the Dead that I have been shown in my journeys for others a place where I myself will go after death? Will I see a reflection of my current mental state at the time of death, as cultural and social expectations seem to suggest? When I have asked questions in journeys about my own death, I have been shown different things at different times; sometimes I am showing a distant and alien place which I'm told is not for me to know about. Sometimes I am shown my spirit self sitting cheerfully among bits of my own corpse, conversing with my spirits just as I do in life. It seems to me that just as my shamanic landscape is different, yet in many ways the same, as that of my colleagues or clients, so my understanding and probably my personal experience of death will be the same, yet different.
Recently I heard a wonderful few lines that made me laugh outloud at the blind optimism of the human spirit, it went something like this: